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Friday, June 7, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Southern Women With Issues reveal 'Divine Secrets'

Seattle Times movie critic

"Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood"


**
With Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Ashley Judd, James Garner, Maggie Smith. Written and directed by Callie Khouri, based on the novels "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" and "Little Altars Everywhere" by Rebecca Wells. 112 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, language and brief sensuality. Several theaters.

It's unfortunate, but perhaps telling, that in this summer's big "women's movie" the only characters with much sense are men.

James Garner and Angus Macfadyen spend "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" listening patiently and generally being the voice of reason to a bevy of Southern Women With Issues. They are both frequently shown leaving the room; something I occasionally wished to do during the movie's near-two-hour running time.

Not that there's nothing to enjoy about "Divine Secrets," but it too frequently veers into screechy melodrama or artificially drawn-out conflict.

At its heart, as the novel's millions of readers already know, is a simple story about mothers, daughters and women's friendships.

Siddalee Walker (Sandra Bullock), a successful playwright and director, finds that her troubled past with her flamboyant Louisiana mother, Viviane (Ellen Burstyn; played in flashbacks by Ashley Judd), is affecting her relationship with her charming Irish fiancé (Macfadyen).

With the help of a trio of Vivi's friends, called the Ya-Yas, who relate stories from Vivi's past, Sidda comes to understand her mother better.

This all sounds very nice indeed, and certainly there were tears and sniffles at a recent preview screening, but much of the movie is so implausible that it's difficult to feel connected to it. (Are elegant Southern matrons really in the habit of hopping on planes to New York in order to drug and kidnap each others' daughters?) And its final revelation and lickety-split happy ending feels entirely false. Vivi's "big secret" turns out to be something that would surely have been obvious to Sidda — it's certainly obvious to those of us watching the movie.

Callie Khouri, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Thelma & Louise," makes some smart choices in her mostly faithful adaptation of Rebecca Wells' novels (the screen Sidda has much more backbone). But the movie feels as crowded as its Southern-kitsch sets.

Told in multilayered flashbacks (echoing the book's structure), "Divine Secrets" is loaded with Southern eccentricity, multigenerational angst and people behaving extremely oddly. And Khouri, making her directing debut here, can't seem to find a consistent tone — drama and zaniness awkwardly duel throughout. A scene in which the young Vivi becomes aware of racism through the mistreatment of a beloved black maid is supposed to be powerful, I think, but becomes an opportunity for goofy shenanigans.

Nonetheless, there's pleasure to be had in seeing so many talented women on screen, even if misused.

Hearing Maggie Smith, as a Ya-Ya, growl her way into a Southern accent is a kick (she doesn't really change her own flawless Brit diction; just streeeeetches every word out like salt-water taffy). Just hearing Smith say "Ya-Ya," now that I think of it, is more entertainment than some movies provide.

Burstyn is badly misdirected here; she overacts and flails about as Vivi, while James Garner lurks in the background rolling his eyes. But Judd, as the younger Vivi, is as vivid as her character's name suggests; her curly, angelic smile and authentic Southern charm help explain why everyone in the movie seems so willing to excuse this woman's many failings. (The movie rises and falls on whether we sympathize with Vivi; with the role split between Burstyn and Judd, it's a bumpy ride.)

And Bullock, who seems to have made a career out of being in the wrong movie, is strangely right-on, blending sophistication with a womanly, believable sadness.

Overall, "Divine Secrets" feels like a very old-fashioned kind of movie; a hyper-stylized melodrama with foofy sets and Technicolor emotions. Nothing wrong with that, but a little subtlety and calmness never hurt, either.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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